Jumoke sits in her shop, arguing with her clientele about the nature of this new disease in a firm but friendly manner. Unlike many inhabitants of Ibadan in April, her business is deemed essential, so she keeps daily – although considerably shortened – business hours. She tells her customers, a group of bricklayers, that the coronavirus is real and could pose a threat to the whole of Nigeria if left unchecked. Unlike Jumoke, the bricklayers are young men, and because of their gender and occupation, they possess boastful confidence. One of them, a tall, muscular man called Marouf, tells Jumoke that COVID-19 is a disease of the upper-class, those who have been to America, therefore he and his boys are confident few labourers like them will ever get infected by the virus.
This opinion of COVID-19 as a disease of the upper-class has circulated for weeks in Nigeria. It is possible to read this as emanating from the belief that a country as divided as Nigeria could have a disease spread among members of its upper class, without having much effect on the poor. In Nigeria, the poor, removed as they are from the realities of the wealthy, see themselves as protected from COVID-19. This strongly held opinion is first counter-intuitive to both a scientific understanding of pandemics and the global patterns of coronavirus spread, especially in societies as stratified as Nigeria. Nevertheless, this theory, which seeks to link the limits to the spread of the disease with class divisions, is not nearly the only story based on hearsay that circulates among labourers in Ibadan. This article aims to help assess and understand the mechanisms and implications of their spread, influenced by the continued, if reduced, mobility of labourers in Ibadan.
Rumours spread to fill perceived gaps in information. What has become evident in Nigeria over the past weeks of the pandemic is that the government cannot provide original information outside the cursory figures for those infected, recovered, and dead. This, coupled with a strong mistrust of the skeletal news emanating from official sources, forces many Nigerians to rely on each other for information. Therefore, fertile ground emerges for the spread of rumours and conspiracy theories, given that many Nigerians are deeply religious and would trust the opinions of preachers and faith healers over those of medical personnel.
Among labourers, the use of feature phones and the lack of social media in their communication habits necessitate an interpersonal spread of information. This fact, in the context of mobility within a partial lockdown, helps Ibadan’s labourers create an echo chamber of their own, exchanging advice, fears, opinions, and even purported cures for COVID-19, even without the algorithmic efficiency of social media.
The labourers do not all believe the pandemic affects only wealthy citizens; rather, their beliefs mirror certain facts of their lives. Marouf, who is the leader of his group, points to one of his boys whose name is Samson. This boy believes that the coronavirus is a signal to the beginning of an anti-Christian conspiracy. He lacks the language to explain his views very clearly, but in pidgin, he says, “dem no want make we go church, and na Easter season we dey.” This fear that the virus is an instrument of religious persecution lingers in Nigeria among Christians and Muslims, and when I ask Samson how he came about this view, he says that a pastor told him. For him, the words of a pastor are more trustworthy than any other opinions. Wumi, a lady who works as a porter for the bricklayers, says she and her friends cannot believe in the virus, because they have not yet seen any of its victims.
Kunle, who works with aluminium in another part of town far removed from Marouf and his boys, says that there is no disease the knowledge of herbs and folk remedies cannot cure. In fact, he and his co-workers have increased their intake of herbal mixtures, which he buys for them from a certain old lady near his apartment. To these men, a complete lockdown of the city would imply being cut off from their source of herbs, and for many of them, this possibility is even scarier than the loss of income a full lockdown would imply.
These opinions, or others very similar to these, were held by most of the labourers interviewed. Furthermore, daily mobility to work sites and contact with each other help create an echo chamber for the labourers’ opinions. While theirs are potentially dangerous beliefs, there are no alternatives that they are willing to trust. A labourer named Sadiq said that since the powerful have been dying from the virus, COVID-19 figures are inflated to keep the poor in check and forestall protests. For him, the ruling class sick from the virus have only deception left for them as a tool to cling to power.
The labourers’ situation has the potential to escalate into a more dangerous scenario; if there were a spike in COVID-19 cases within the city, a mistrusting populace is more likely to disregard hygiene and public safety recommendations, and instead depend on a mixture of faith healing and folk remedies, or find even more solace in rumours. Furthermore, in that case, could a city like Ibadan, within a developing country like Nigeria, afford to take away the mobility of its people, when they depend on this mobility for their employment within the informal economy?
Anyah Richard is a student and Research Assistant at the Diaspora and Transnational Studies Unit of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He is interested in the origins of Black Atlantic religious gaps, irregular migration, and the lingering racism of American comedy. He has helped author a report on irregular migration from Nigeria for the UNESCO regional office in Abuja.